What’s Shakespeare got to do with trail running?

East Kip from West Kip

A good runnable path linking hilltops in the Pentlands – is it a ‘hill’ run or a ‘trail’ run?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, so said Juliet to Romeo. A while ago I read an entertaining Outdoors Magic editorial in which Jon Doran asked if ‘trail running’ was the new and currently fashionable name for an activity we in the UK used to call ‘hill running’ or ‘cross-country’. He reached the same conclusion as Juliet – that the terminology was unimportant provided people were getting out and enjoying themselves.

I entirely agree with Jon – it’s fantastic that more and more folk are getting out! However, I do happen to think that semantics are important. Not only in a pedantic linguistic sense, but very, very useful in practical terms. After all – for me, the phrase “10 mile hill run” conjures up quite a different picture to a “10 mile trail run”. But are my expectations aligned with others? Without a shared understanding of the meaning of these words I run the risk of being horribly sandbagged, or disappointed, if invited on someone else’s run.

What is trail running?” is often the first question I am asked. Defining what ‘trail running’ means was vital to selecting routes for Scottish Trail Running and I’ve copied my ‘working definition’ below: 

“…a continuously visible route on the ground which is not a tarmac public road and has no deep mud or bog, no tussocks and no boulder fields.”

Writing the guidebook was all about finding runnable path and track circuits in as wide a range of beautiful places as possible. Clearly this definition doesn’t outlaw hills since plenty of hills have strong paths to their summits – but if I were running up to the top of a significant hill, path or no path, I’d probably call it a ‘hill run’.

Chatelherault Country Park, South Lanarkshire

Definitely trail running – wild garlic lining woodland paths in Chatelherault Country Park, South Lanarkshire

What I love most about my definition of trail running is the huge variety it encompasses. From incredible beaches, cliff-tops and seascapes to ancient pine forests, dappled oak and beech woodlands, rushing rivers and still deep lochs – the list goes on and on. Running trails in all these different places gave me a whole new perspective on Scotland after years of mainly running up and down hills.

The magazine ‘Trail Running‘ has the sub-title ‘The UK’s no 1 off-road running mag’. ‘Off-road running’ is a very useful catch-all phrase. However, it does include the extremes: from immaculate canal paths to vertiginous shoulder-deep bracken (where using the term ‘running’ may be somewhat aspirational). If I were invited on an ‘off-road’ run I’d probably ask for clarification and that’s where the ‘hill’, ‘trail’ terminology becomes useful – provided we’re all speaking the same language. A rose may smell just as sweet if I call it a ‘thistle’ – but if I am offered a thistle, even by someone who calls it a ‘rose’, I am unlikely to be terribly appreciative! 

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